Helping children deal with online issues when things go wrong

Sharon is a working Mum with four children aged from 10 to 17. Not surprisingly, they talk about the Internet and social media regularly, but Sharon understands first-hand that things can still go wrong!

“I regularly dip into social media now, and ask the kids what they’re up to online, who they’re talking to, and reminding them that if you’re not friends with someone, not to accept their request.”

Chasing ‘likes’ on social

This has particularly been an issue on Instagram, where the children are often more interested in gaining large numbers of followers, rather than knowing who’s following them. “It sounds ridiculous to us as adults, but it’s a real thing for youngsters,” says Sharon.

The children don’t necessarily challenge the rules but do often complain that they already know it all, says Sharon. “Even so, I don’t think you can ever be 100% complacent,” she says.

When things go wrong

Around a year ago, when she was 15, Sharon’s eldest daughter received a notification that she had been tagged in a post on Facebook. When she opened the post, some of her own photos had been re-posted on her wall by a boy in the year above her at school, with sexually explicit comments underneath. Later, the boy also posted a sexually explicit image of himself on Ciara’s Facebook wall.

“The post was public, on her wall for everyone to see,” says Sharon. “Ciara immediately blocked the boy, but fortunately she had taken a screenshot of the content first.”

Ciara talked to her head of year at school about the incident, and the school informed Sharon and the police. The student was given a caution and had to undergo a rehabilitation programme, while a youth intervention officer worked with Ciara to give her the opportunity to talk about how she felt, and what outcome she wanted to see.

Dealing with emotional impact

“The meetings were a great help because Ciara really struggled with why this boy had done this, why her?” says Sharon. “She was encouraged to write a letter to him, I worry about how she might have felt if that intervention wasn’t available to her.”

Talking openly is key

Following this experience, Sharon says she does not sugar coat the dangers of online activity with her kids. “If there’s anything in the media about things going wrong, I show them. We live in the real world, and they need to know about the potential dangers out there.”

Above all, Sharon urges other parents to overcome their embarrassment and talk to teens. “I feel 100% comfortable discussing anything with my children. Why be embarrassed? That thing you’re too embarrassed to mention could be the one time it goes wrong!”

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